The world’s first comprehensive framework for assessing the mental and psychological well-being of wild animals was developed by UTS Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Andrea Harvey, a veterinarian and animal welfare scientist at TD College at the University of Technology Sydney.
The study’s significance lies in its potential to revolutionize conservation efforts. Rather than focusing solely on population numbers and reproductive success, the research explores the quality of life that wild animals lead.
This shift in perspective can provide important early warning signals about species challenges and population declines, leading to more effective conservation strategies.
“While research on the well-being of pets and farm animals has been substantial, including indicators of emotional states such as stress, pain and fear, my goal is to bridge the gap by examining the individual lives, feelings and mental experiences of wild animals,” said Dr. Harvey.
“A deeper understanding of the well-being of wild animal populations can not only enhance conservation efforts, but also provide an indication of the state of the natural environment and its recognized relationships to human health and well-being.”
The study, which was part of Andrea’s doctoral research at the UTS Center for Compassionate Conservation, focuses on brumbies—free-roaming wild horses—from Australia’s alpine regions, yet the framework is broadly applicable to assessing many species of wildlife.
Dr. Harvey chose Brumbies as equine welfare was studied in domestic settings, providing a bridge for wild animals. The paper, Mental Experiments in Wild Animals: Scientifically Validating Measurable Indicators of Well-Being in Free-Roaming Horses, is published in the animals.
Her comprehensive conceptual framework, called the Phase X Protocol, includes physical and behavioral indicators of both negative and positive mental experiences in wild animals.
“If you have a dog, you know their usual routine, what they like, and how they act in certain circumstances. You know if they are happy, sad, or sad, so this research turns that understanding over to wild animals.”
“We can never be certain exactly what is going on in an animal’s mind and what it is feeling. It is also an area that scientists have traditionally shied away from. However, we do know that mental experiences arise from physical states, and we can directly measure those states.”
“Nutrition, physical environment, health, and behavioral interactions all provide evidence for the animals’ mental experience. This includes negative states such as thirst, hunger, heat, cold, discomfort, pain, fatigue, anxiety, and fear, and positive states such as satiety, exercise of strength, physical vitality, and positive social interactions.”
This holistic approach brings together different areas of scientific knowledge, including neuroscience and behavior, and neuroethics – the study of the neural basis of an animal’s normal behavior – to interpret the data collected and gain insight into well-being.
Dr Harvey is currently collaborating with researchers studying Australian waterfowl, such as the ibis and straw-necked pelican. These birds serve as indicators of water quality and wetland health, which can guide management decisions in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The welfare of koalas, which have been declared endangered in New South Wales, is also under scrutiny. Previous koala research has mainly focused on survival and disease. Dr. Harvey’s research aims to assess the overall welfare of koalas to inform policy decisions related to conservation and habitat protection.
Dr Harvey is also working with other researchers studying the welfare of kangaroos and dingoes at a field station in southern Queensland, focusing on the predator-prey relationship, the impact of climate change and recovery from drought.
Each species presents unique challenges, such as identifying individuals, assessing mental experiences in large populations, and considering different environments and habitats.
Dr. Harvey acknowledges the challenges of studying the mental experiences of wild animals compared to domestic animals. The absence of close human relationships with individual animals and the difficulty of observing them for long periods of time present significant obstacles.
However, innovative approaches such as remote camera traps have proven valuable in collecting accurate data on wild animal behaviour, including body position and facial expressions.
Dr. Harvey’s pioneering research holds enormous potential in transforming the field of conservation biology, by shedding light on the mental experiences of wild and endangered animals.
“Welfare assessments should be part of all wildlife monitoring, and ultimately all environmental policy decision-making, which must take into account not only individual species, but also the interactions between different species and their ecosystems.”